Called in, Part II | June 3

Texts: Mark 2:23-3:6

I’m not sure what to think of the fact that on the final day before a summer Sabbath from church life, the gospel lectionary is about Jesus misbehaving on the Sabbath.  It’s gotta be a sign.  Not so sure yet how it affects our Sabbatical itinerary.  Or maybe this has to do with your Sabbatical itinerary.  We’ll soon find out.

Having a clean, although temporary, break like this feels like a good time to do some reflecting on where we’ve been together.  It’s been five years now, almost exactly, since you called me to Columbus Mennonite.  It’s enough time to have a few stories.

As a continuation of last week’s sermon, this is Called In, Part II.  The idea of calling has a long and rich history.  Calling is something that beckons us in, to what some have simply referred to as the Great Work.  The Great Work lifts us out of our small ego selves and into the collective work of healing and justice and community.  It’s what Jews often call Tikkun Olam, The repair of the world.

Called in” is a phrase we’re borrowing from SURJ, Showing Up for Racial Justice.  It’s a bit of a play on words.  Anytime you have a group of people sharing life and work together there can be a tendency to call people out for their shortcomings.  Calling people out usually results in shame and blame.  Calling each other in has a different energy behind it.  It’s the kind of call that matches up with the Spirit of Jesus when he invited folks to Come, follow me.

Today’s gospel reading presents a pretty spot-on framework for what following Jesus has meant for us.

The reading is composed of two stories that Mark puts back to back, held together by the theme of Sabbath.  Held together further by the theme of Jesus pushing up against the boundaries of Sabbath law.  In both cases he is accused of misbehavior.

In the first instance Jesus and his companions are going through a field of grain.  For most of Mark, Jesus is traveling around his home region of Galilee.  It was north of Jerusalem and predominantly rural.  Nobody in Jesus’ group owned this particular grain field.  But the Torah had generous laws about gleaning from other people’s fields.  It instructed land owners to not harvest the edges of their fields and to not go back over their harvested fields a second time.  They were forbidden from maximizing the ratio of grain in the barn to grain left out in the fields.  The land was ultimately the Lord’s, the grain a gift of abundance, and so some of it was to be left for those who didn’t have their own land.  They could come and glean.  It was a social safety net, mandated by law.

This practice is prominent in the biblical story of Ruth.  During harvest season, the foreigner Ruth goes out daily to glean for herself and her mother-in-law Naomi in the fields of Boaz.  She catches Boaz’s eye, makes a few moves herself to show Boaz she’s interested, and the rest is history, including having a great grandson named David who became a king.  Many more greats down the line was Jesus of Nazareth.

In our minds, programmed to uphold the sanctity of private property, Jesus and his followers are trespassing, but they’re perfectly within the legal bounds of Torah, and by gleaning Jesus is channeling the free spirit of his great, great, many greats grandma Ruth.

Where they are pushing the bounds is that this was a Sabbath, a day on which work was prohibited.  There was vigorous debate within the community about what all constituted work.  Harvesting was strictly out, but is this really harvesting?  In his own defense, Jesus cites something that David once did, while he and his companions were hungry.  They went into a shrine and ate some of the holy bread that only the priests were supposed to eat.  The point: satisfying a basic human need supersedes religious restrictions and legal regulations.  This story ends by Jesus delivering a line that summarizes his understanding of this relationship: “The Sabbath was made for humankind, and not humankind of the Sabbath” (2:27).

Mark follows this up with a second Sabbath story.  This one takes place in a synagogue.  In the congregation there is a man with a withered hand.  Jesus is being watched closely to see whether he will heal on the Sabbath.  During the sharing of joys and concerns Jesus calls the man forward.  Jesus poses a question to the congregation: “Is it lawful to do good or to do harm on the sabbath, to save life or to kill?”  Nobody says anything.  Mark next narrates this: “Jesus looked around at them with anger; he was grieved.”  Jesus tells the man to stretch out his hand, which he does.  Hand restored.  Does anyone else have a joy or concern you’d like to share with the community?

In this story there’s no way Jesus could be accused of doing work on the Sabbath.  He doesn’t even touch the man.  He just tells him to come up front, and to stretch out his hand.  But this might be one of those occasions where Jesus actually does call out his opponents.  They have been publicly shamed.  The story ends with them starting to plot for a way to get rid of Jesus.

It’s important to note that these stories, like many others in the gospels, should not be read as Jesus vs. the Jews, or free-spirited Christianity vs. legalistic Judaism.  Scholars have puzzled over some of these controversies which the gospels seem to blow out of proportion, or to mischaracterize Jesus’ opponents.  Strict and humorless Pharisees certainly make a good foil alongside Jesus.

What’s more helpful is to read these kinds of stories as a clash between different ways of viewing the sacred, and what lies at the core of human conviction – religious and otherwise.  They highlight this painfully common phenomenon of how what some consider to be misbehavior, others consider to be behavior that is faithful, compassionate, even logical, essential.

And here’s where these gospel stories start to jive with the story of CMC over the last five years, and really many more years going back.  Because, depending on your perspective, these five years both opened and are now closing with a significant act of misbehavior on our part.

If you can think back that far, you might remember that toward the end of that first year, this would have been the summer of 2014, we had a process unofficially referred to as “clarifying our welcome.”  This process actually went surprisingly quickly.  In large part because years prior the congregation had an extensive process that resulted in a public affirmation of LGBTQ persons as full members in the congregation.  It included biblical study, insights from science, storytelling, and study of wider church statements.  It was a discussion the congregation had been having for decades.  This made it official in a new way.  Then in 2014 we clarified that not only did this have to do with membership, but that the full spectrum of sexual orientation was a non-factor in regards to the couples we bless for marriage and who we might call to pastoral ministry or church staff.  One of its immediate effects was preparing the way for us to hire the best candidate for the position of Pastor of Christian Formation.  Mark has been sharing his gifts with us ever since.

This feels so normal and matter-of-fact now that we might forget how much this pushed us up against the boundaries of the wider Mennonite Church, and put us outside the clear boundaries of official church statements.  This was a risk.  It’s still technically against church teaching for a Mennonite pastor to officiate at the wedding of a same-sex couple.  The language used to describe such misbehavior is “at variance.”  We are “at variance” with official church statements – which would make for a pretty good two word bumper sticker I’m sure many of you would enthusiastically use.

When you’re “at variance,” reduced to a classification of misbehavior, it’s important to clarify, at least in one’s own mind, why and how the community is actually being faithful, compassionate, logical, essential, acting out of the best of our tradition.  So while certain isolated biblical texts get lobbed against LGBTQ folks, we have looked to stories like these in Mark – where we are confronted with two different ways of viewing the sacred.

One focuses on upholding particular boundaries and restrictions.  And let’s be clear: these boundaries have a profound power to give meaning and order to life.  They offer a world with clean distinctions between the sacred and the profane, the faithful and the unfaithful.  I’m convinced the power of a world with this kind of clarity is one of the biggest reasons many folks hold on to it so tightly.

Another approach is to hold the human being at center.  To watch and listen for what brings about human flourishing.  What brings about healing.  What meets the need for nourishment, regardless of whether this is or isn’t the right day of the week to pluck the grain from the field.  This approach claims that wherever there are laws and restrictions and guidelines, they must always be in the service of human thriving, rather than human thriving being sacrificed on the altar of traditional boundaries.  “The Sabbath was made for humanity,” Jesus says.  “Not humanity for the Sabbath.”  We could add that the thriving of all life is at stake.

This isn’t just an interpretative slide of hand so we can claim that we’re more biblical than others.  It really is an entirely different orientation toward faith – pun intended.

I’ve been reading a long essay by Thomas Merton, the Trappist Monk, and one of the most influential voices of the 20th century.  It’s titled “Christian Humanism” and in that essay he comments on these very stories from Mark’s gospel.  He writes, “In each case, what is of utmost importance is the fact that Jesus, for instance, in working miracles on the sabbath, is emphasizing the priority of human values over conventionally ‘religious’ ones.  In each case, where there is a choice between the good of a suffering human person and the claims of formal and established legalism, Jesus decides for the person and against the claims of legalistic religion.”
(Love and Living, by Thomas Merton, p. 142).

Which leads into our most recent misbehavior / faithful action.

When we said Yes to being a Sanctuary congregation last August, none of us knew what we were getting ourselves into.  If any of you did, you forgot to tell me.  We knew that we had been a part of the sanctuary movement of the 80’s, a story we had just retold the week prior at our 55 year anniversary celebration – having no idea Edith would walk into our lives four days later.  We knew we wanted to live out the message on the signs we put outside our church building: “Do justice, love mercy, walk humbly.”  “No matter where you’re from, we’re glad you’re our neighbor.”  “No importa de donde eres, estamos contentos que seas nuestro vecino.”  We knew that Mennonites have a rich history of conscientious objection to state policies that violate our understanding of who Jesus calls us to be.  We knew there were times in Mennonite history when we have needed sanctuary, and places like this country extended it to us.  We knew this was a risk.  We knew we were going to have help.

And this was enough.

Aside from a few phone calls early on from concerned Christians citing Romans 13 that we should obey the ruling authorities, this has not been seen as an act of misbehavior by the wider faith community.  We and Edith and her family have been surrounded by support locally.  Our denomination, with whom we are still apparently “at variance” in one way, has affirmed and embraced this calling and told the story in a number of ways.  Like the words of Thomas Merton and the actions of Jesus, this is an instance in which human values take priority.

But this is still held as an act of misbehavior against the policies of the state.  And even though we’ve learned much in the last nine months, we still don’t know what we’ve gotten ourselves into.  And that’s OK.

I don’t mean to present misbehavior as a good for its own sake.  As a parent of young, but not- as- young –as- they- used- to- be children, I have a growing appreciation for healthy rules and boundaries.  They help give shape to our lives.  It just so happens that the shape of some of the rules we’ve encountered in the last few years have been a distortion of what makes for healthy living.

So what started as “expanding our welcome” with LGBTQ folks among us has expanded through some intense antiracism and racial justice work, and into sanctuary.  We’ve done some significant work.

But life is more than work.  Which is why Sabbath was made for humankind.

So that’s what we’re entering now.  I say “We” because my hope is that these next few months can also be a Sabbath time for the congregation.  Not a Sabbath as in ceasing from all work, but a Sabbath as in a time of intentional renewal.

If you’re out wandering about and get hungry, glean some grain for you and companions.  Shed another layer of unhelpful teachings you’ve absorbed over the decades, and bring into better focus the shape of your new life in Christ.  If you’re in need of healing, extend your hand and see what happens.

That’s what I’m hoping to do personally.

I’m grateful for these years of co-laboring with you.  And now I’m grateful for the opportunity to have a Sabbatical to cease from labor.  I wish you a time of renewal.  My intention is to come back rested and renewed, ready to be called in with you to more holy misbehavior in the spirit of Jesus.





Called in, Part I | May 27

Texts: Isaiah 6:1-10, John 3:8

I first heard the phrase “Called in” about two years ago.  It was right here, so hopefully some of you heard it too.  It was during our year-long focus on antiracism and racial justice.  Several of those sermons were in the format of an interview.  I would sit down with someone engaged in this work and do my best Terry Gross or Krista Tippet impression.  This particular Sunday our guest interviewee was Rev. Lane Campbell, one of the pastors at First Unitarian Universalist, just up High Street.  She has been a leader of a group called Showing Up for Racial Justice, SURJ.  Early on in the conversation she mentioned one of the core values of SURJ: “Calling people in, not out.”

It’s a value that acknowledges the difficulty of the work – the courage it takes to confront racism and the many ways our lives have been consciously and unconsciously racialized.  There are opportunities at just about every turn to call people out for their failures and blindness, historical and present day.  For our failures and blindness.

But calling people in.  That’s a different approach.  That’s a different kind of call.  The very phrase feels like it offers a fresh space.  The work is no less difficult and courageous, but now we’re able to enter it in a new way.

Called in.

Sometimes you come across a phrase that won’t quite leave you alone, and this has been one of those for me.

About a year after we first heard it, a year ago, I was pondering what might serve as a good theme for an upcoming Sabbatical – or, to be more specific and honest, what might serve as a good theme for a Sabbatical grant.  This was the phrase that pulled it together: Called In, followed by four concentric circles about where that calling takes place: World, City, Congregation, Self.

As that Sabbatical now rapidly approaches, that idea of being Called In, is back at the forefront, and not just for me.  The worship theme throughout the summer, and into September, will track this theme.  Guest speakers and different voices and artists from CMC will add their own thoughts into the mix.  And it’s a good thing Mark decided to come back once his Sabbatical ended.  He’ll give pastoral leadership throughout the summer.  One of the dangers of letting a pastor go on Sabbatical is they discover how nice it is to have flexible weekends, and suddenly realize why most people aren’t pastors.

So for this Sunday and next, before our family enters the world of flexible weekends, I want to talk about being called in.  Today in more a general way, and next week by doing some reflecting on the past five years of CMC life.  It’s nice that today’s lectionary reading from Isaiah is a call story.

As we do this, let’s cast as wide a net as we can for this notion of “Calling.”  Because it can be a tricky word.  Depending on one’s understanding of God and one’s church background, it can pretty easily evoke an image of God as this being who has this clear and singular plan for your life, and it’s up to you to figure out what that plan is, except that you can’t figure it out because there’s this spiritual deficiency in you that is preventing you from reading the blueprint, and it’s your fault.

This is not what we mean by calling.

Although it does very much have to do with paying attention and a posture of listening.

One of the clearest distillations of calling in the last half century comes from Frederick Buechner, an ordained Presbyterian minister and an author.  It’s quoted quite frequently, maybe you’ve come across it.  Buechner says:

“The place you’re called to be is the place where your deep gladness and the world’s deep hunger meet.”

“The place you’re called to be is the place where your deep gladness and the world’s deep hunger meet.”

This is a lovely, and actually quite practical way of thinking about calling.  You can map it.  It’s a two circle venn diagram.  School is about to let out for summer, but here the pastor is trying to get you to think about venn diagrams, thus the bulletin cover.  In one circle is everything the world needs: thriving children, healthy water and forests and cities, beauty and the arts, good institutions, less pollution, cross-cultural understanding, transportation, health care…  This can end up being a very large circle.

In the other circle is what gives you personal deep gladness: Making music, developing technologies, creating wealth and meaningful work for others, research, writing, designing, teaching, connecting people.

Where those circles overlap is where your deep gladness and world’s deep hunger meet.  This is the place you’re called to be.  This is the place where you will feel most fulfilled.  It’s not a specific blue print.  It’s a moving target, a range of possibilities.  This is the place into which you are Called In.

Got it?  OK, because now I’m going to contradict that, or at least add another layer.

As lovely a picture this is, it’s quite different than many of the call stories we hear in scripture.  In both the Hebrew and Christian Testaments, the experience of call, rather than being practical, map-able, and glad-making, appears to be anything but.

The call of the prophet Isaiah in chapter 6 of that book is a case in point.

We don’t get a lot of context for this story, except that it happened in the year King Uzziah of Judah died.  This statement might be intended to get us thinking about transitional time, in-between times.  These unique spaces in the unfolding of life and history that are both unstable, and so fruitful for seeing the world in new ways and gaining new direction.  Or, saying “the year King Uzziah died” may just be a way of telling time.  Pegging events to the reign of rulers was common in the ancient world.

Either way, we’re soon plunged into a grand vision, seen by Isaiah and apparently no one else around him.  In this vision Yahweh is sitting on the temple throne, holding court, attended by heavenly creatures who repeat a proclamation of awe and wonder: “Qadosh, Qadosh, Qadosh.  Holy, Holy, Holy, is Yahweh of hosts, the whole earth is full of Yahweh’s glory.”  The scene is complete with smoke and rattling.

Isaiah’s reaction is markedly not one of deep gladness.  Confronted with the overwhelming enormity of Divine presence, he is simultaneously confronted with his own smallness.  “Woe is me,” he says.  “I am lost, for I am a man of unclean lips.”  Isaiah’s calling will soon be revealed as using those very lips to speak to his people.  But like Sarai and Moses and Jeremiah and even Mary the mother of Jesus, Isaiah’s initial response is an immediate recognition of his own inadequacy for the task at hand.

Only after one of the heavenly beings takes a hot coal from the altar and touches it to Isaiah’s lips, is Isaiah able to utter his famous response: “Here am I, send me.”

His mistake is that he agrees to the calling before finding out what he’s actually going to be doing.  After getting a firm Yes, Yahweh reveals the task: “Go and say to this people: Keep listening, but do not comprehend; keep looking, but do not understand.”  Yahweh lets Isaiah know that the mind of the people will be made even more dull by his words.  They will stop up their ears and shut their eyes, shut down all their senses to what he’s saying.

It’s as if Isaiah says, “I’m completely unprepared and unable to do this task.”  And Yahweh says, “That’s not a problem at all because you’re going to fail miserably.  Now hop to it.”

In the Bible, calling is never quite something you want to do.

And that’s what qualifies you to do it.  It’s a larger thing that is recruiting you, way larger than personal ego, which is one of the reasons ego reacts so strongly against it.  Even Jesus in the Garden of Gethsemane was putting up some resistance, yet ultimately yielding.

Frederick Buechner says: “The place you’re called to be is the place where your deep gladness and the world’s deep hunger meet.”

And if we could modify Buechner and apply it to Isaiah, we might get something like: “The place you’re called to be is where what most terrifies you and what seems least likely to succeed meet.”

Try that venn diagram on for size.

Two weeks ago I had lunch with Jessica Shimberg, now Rabbi Shimberg, recently ordained, leader of the Little Minyan Kehila which celebrates their high holy days in this sanctuary.  It was a different topic, but one thing Jessica said was that she felt like one of the key roles of spiritual leaders is to point toward the both/and rather than the either/or.  That sounds right to me.

So I will pass along that piece of rabbinical wisdom to you and suggest that being “Called in” is not a matter of either/or, but is a matter of both/and.

So maybe now we have a four circle venn diagram in which the place you are called to be is where your deep gladness and what most terrifies you and the world’s deep hunger and what is least likely to succeed…meet.  That certainly narrows it down.  Maybe just about everyone is called to be a pastor after all.

I’m not sure who first made the observation, but one of the great risks of the evolutionary advance of consciousness, is that it has produced creatures who have been freed from the confines of instinct.  And we are those creatures.  We have instinctual parts of our brains that can serve us very well for basic survival, but we also have the neurological apparatus to transcend instinct.  We ponder possibilities and alternative futures.  We contemplate the Divine and wonder what holds all this together and what our place might be in it all.

So while other creatures are largely guided by deeply ingrained patterns and genomic programming, we humans quite literally don’t know what we’re doing.  We don’t know what we’re doing.

We live with a freedom that can just as easily produce anxiety as it produces liberation, especially in our contemporary society which places so much emphasis on the self-made individual and less emphasis on inherited wisdom and the guide of tradition.

And so we have this notion of calling.  Healthy individuals, and healthy institutions, including congregations, pay attention to this.  This sense of being beckoned toward something which makes us and those around us more fully alive, more in tune with the larger work of this enormous reality we call God, whose glory fills the whole earth, even when we shut our eyes and ears to it.  Even if our initial reaction is one of fear.  Perhaps especially if our initial reaction is one of fear.

Calling is tricky because it’s always happening.  It’s a never finished project.  Jesus keeps saying “Follow me,” and doesn’t seem interested in standing still.  Like Jesus said to Nicodemus – those attuned to the Spirit are like the wind.  We’re never quite sure it’s going.

And speaking of an unfinished project, I want to continue this next week and look more at the calling of this congregation and what it has looked like over the last while to be part of a collective with a very clear calling to do justice, love mercy, and walk humbly with God.  A calling that is clear, yet wide open, with many overlapping circles.



Things to keep open: doors, scriptures, minds | April 15   


Text: Luke 24:36-49

Around this time of year about a decade ago, Abbie and I and little Eve and even littler Lily were waiting, hopefully, for thousands of small openings in the soil of our backyard.  We had just bought a house in Cincinnati that winter.  The house fit our needs just fine, but the backyard needed some love.  The previous September, during the windstorms of Hurricane Ike, before we owned the house, a massive silver maple from our yard had fallen across several properties.  Many of the branches and cut up pieces of trunk were returned to the yard we’d purchased.

Also the family who lived there before us had a large playset roughly the size of a McDonalds play land.  It had taken up a good chunk of yard.  A neighbor later told us they were pretty sure it actually was a used McDonalds play land set.  It was gone, but its large footprint was grassless.

We cut, chopped and stacked the silver maple, and rototilled the yard that wasn’t actually a yard to loosen up the soil.  We spread grass seed, threw out some straw covering, and welcomed the rain that soon came.  Moisture and warmth from the sun was all it took to open up all those small seeds.  With some assistance from us, nature did its thing enabling the seeds to open: to shoot down into the ground with some roots and up into the air toward the sun.  Those thousands of openings provided a turf for playing for the following years.

From Easter to Pentecost, the season we’re in now, a similar kind of opening is happening for the disciples.  The risen Jesus has this limited time to open his followers to a new reality.  To crack the shell of their fear.  To put them in a position where they can take firm root and thrive and grow.  The process of being cracked open is not an easy one for the disciples to undergo.  It is met with skepticism and disbelief.

In the story from Luke, Jesus’ appearance to the disciples the evening of the resurrection, we can note three different openings taking place.  So let’s consider each of these:

Open Doors. 

Luke doesn’t emphasize this as much as John, but if we take John’s version into account we are told that the disciples’ initial encounter with the risen Christ happens behind closed doors, or, locked doors to be more precise.  With the public execution of their leader only two days in the past, they’d found a relatively safe place to huddle so they wouldn’t be found out as members of the Jesus movement.  But then, at some point in their huddling, Jesus came and stood among them.  Luke and John do agree on Jesus’ initial words to them.  “Peace be with you.”  They also agree on the theme of Jesus’ message – The Spirit of God will come to you, and you’re going to open wide these doors and start doing my work everywhere you happen to be, even in the far corners of the world.

It’s quite a shift.  Quite a change from closing the doors.

Living with the doors open means the disciples will encounter people and situations they couldn’t anticipate.  Like Peter and John who, on their way to the temple, cross paths with a man who can’t walk.  Or Phillip who, while on the road, had a run-in with the treasury secretary of Ethiopia, the eunuch who was on his way to Jerusalem to worship.  Or later when Peter starts walking through the open doors of Gentile homes, and discovering that the Spirit shows up in all sorts of off the map kinds of places.  In the power of the Spirit the disciples go from being closers and lockers of doors, to being door openers.

I have to interject here that there are many good reasons for closed doors.  One of the great reliefs of spring is that I can let up on my vigilance of reminding people in our household significantly younger than me to shut the door when they’re coming and going.  So simple yet so rarely done.  I also have this thing with keeping bedroom doors closed at night.  I have difficulty falling asleep if our bedroom door isn’t closed.  Like I need the cocoon fully sealed shut.  Where it borders on slightly pathological is that I also don’t like it if the girls’ bedroom doors are open, so on my final evening rounds, that’s on the checklist.  There’s some kind of peace of mind when everyone is sealed up temporarily in their own cocoon.  My theory to explain away the pathology is that it’s only when we take care to have some closed door time that we can joyfully engage in open door time.

But most of our days are most likely spent behind closed doors.  Doors at home, doors at work, and doors on the cars that transport us from home to work.  Part of our calling is to find ways to make closed doors open.  When we welcome people into our home, or into our office, or into our church building, there is a sense in which we are welcoming Christ.  All who pass through the door make the place holy ground.  We break bread together, we share thoughts and stories.  We collaborate on projects.  We welcome in those we love and those who are difficult to love, and those we barely know.  The book of Hebrews picks up on this theme.  It says, “Let mutual love continue.  Do not neglect to show hospitality to strangers, for by doing that some have entertained angels without knowing it.”  The experience of the risen Jesus, and the gift of the Holy Spirit had the effect of enabling the disciples to recognize that everyone who crossed their path was in some way a piece God.

Keeping the door open gives us less control over who or what may come across our paths.  Open doors enable Christ to wander in and say, “Peace be with you.”

Open Scriptures

Luke 24:45 says “Then Jesus opened their minds to understand the scriptures.”  In this case, scriptures means the Hebrew Scriptures, what we sometimes call the Old Testament.  The Law, the prophets, and the Psalms and Writings.  Something recorded by previous generations about their encounter with God that the disciples had available to them.  Tellling about creation, covenants, teachings, sayings of wisdom, praising and lamenting.  Expressing longings for justice.  Telling the story of the people of Israel who move from slavery to wilderness to promised land, through judges and kings and wars and prophets and exile and return.

All of this, Jesus opens up to them.  They already know what it says.  Have heard the stories from their youth.  Perhaps memorized whole chunks of passages as was more common in oral cultures.  They already were plenty familiar with these scriptures.  But with Jesus in the room, this time, they see scripture as if for the first time.

What is going on here is just as instructive for us as it was for the disciples.  What is being offered is a particular way of reading scripture and the tradition we have inherited – of reading history.  For the disciples, over however long a stretch of time it took to sink in, the suffering Christ, the one who identified with the least of these, the dying and rising Christ for whom death was not the end, becomes the primary narrative of every narrative.  The life of Jesus becomes the primary way of reading every other life, every part of scripture.  In other words, we read everything from now on as if Jesus is in the room.

The “New” Testament reads everything as if he had always been in the room.  Christ was in the room at creation, the word that was to become flesh, as John’s gospel says.  He was in the room when Abram and Sarai were promised that their offspring would become a blessing to all nations.  He was in the room when Jeremiah spoke about a new covenant that God would write on the people’s hearts.  He was in the room when Isaiah spoke about the servant of the Lord who was anointed to preach good news to the poor.  And this presence then and now effects how we see things.

The lowly and weak of each story turn out to have much more in common with Christ than the mighty and powerful.  Certain codes and laws that served to separate the righteous from the unrighteous turn out to be less important.  Acts of kindness and compassion turn out to be signs of good news, even if they happen through people and places formerly considered outsiders and outside.

We have come to call this a Christo-centric reading of Scripture.  Christ becomes the organizing principle through which all teachings are interpreted.

And so if Jesus is in the room, it affects how we interpret our culture.  How we read the events going on around us.  Open Scriptures means the story is still being written.

Open Minds

In some ways, talking about open minds is a little redundant after talking about open doors and open scriptures.  Luke does pair open minds and open scriptures together when he says that “Jesus opened their minds to understand the scripture.”  It might be something like the proverbial chicken and the egg question – which comes first?  The open door or the open mind?  The open mind or the open scriptures?  By the way, there were eggs long before there were chickens.  So the egg came first.  But, the first chicken was a slight mutation from an egg laid by a non-chicken, so a chicken at least came before chicken eggs.  But this is a different conversation.

It could be the case that the open mind comes first, and leads us toward open doors and open scriptures.  Having an open mind is a fairly common phrase that we’ve tossed around for a while.  And a lot of people seem to agree it’s a good kind of mind to have.  Open-mindedness may be enough of a catch-all term that we don’t put a lot of thought into what it actually requires to have an open mind.  Has open mindedness been reduced to just mean liberal?  Can one be an open-minded conservative?  Something even this basic gets politicized.  Hopefully an open mind can mean something beyond ideology.  Beyond where we come down on any particular political or theological issue.

Having an open mind could be another way of saying that we are listening.  We are listening, and we’re willing to take in new ideas.  And we’re willing to take in old ideas.  There’s room to allow all those things inside of us.  The boundary between where I end, and not-I begins is an open boundary.  We keep a particular identity, and certain core convictions, but we recognize our identity to be fluid.  To be incomplete.  To be needing more.

It could also be the case that open doors and open scriptures come first, and only then can the mind really open.  I like the way this works because it means that our actions and relationships shape our thoughts.  Rather than thinking our way to right action, we act our way to right thinking.  We keep our doors open, we allow Christ to open the scriptures to us, and this shapes our thinking.  The people we encounter, the ways we discover Christ present around us, open up new ways of thinking and new ways of seeing the world.  We have to deal with unexpected relationships, unanticipated life decisions.  Our minds must adapt, be flexible.  We must listen.

In this season of spring and Easter resurrection we look for the ways that we are being opened up.  Cracked open, growing, receiving the Spirit of God.

Open doors.  Open Scriptures.  Open minds.


Sabbath from Violence | Palm Sunday | March 25

Texts: Leviticus 25:1-7; John 12:12-33


There’s no way around the violence of Jesus’ death.  The piece of street theater we refer to as the triumphal entry on Palm Sunday is the beginning of a week of intense confrontation between Jesus and the religious and political authorities.  It’s a tension that had been building throughout Jesus’ public life.

There were times Jesus had proven to be more strict than the most stringent interpreters of Scripture.  Like arguing that not only should the people obey the commandment “Do not murder,” but that whoever holds resentment in their heart toward another person is in the same category as a murderer.  At other times Jesus made proclamations as radical and liberating as any freedom fighter before or after him.  Like when he stood up in the synagogue of his hometown in Nazareth and declared that, like Isaiah, the Spirit of the Lord was upon him to grant release for captives, to let the oppressed go free, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.  The year of the Lord’s favor, the Jubilee: when debts were forgiven, slaves set free, and wealth that had accumulated into the hands of the few was redistributed among the people.

Jesus called into his inner circle tax collectors who had made their fortunes collaborating with the Roman Empire, benefitting off the military occupation of their own kin.  And people like Simon the Zealot, who had been a part of a revolutionary band conspiring to violently overthrow Roman control of Judea.

In a highly patriarchal honor/shame culture, Jesus touched and restored to community a bleeding woman.  He engaged in face to face conversation with a foreign woman as an intellectual equal around a well in Samaria.  Jesus drew much of his financial support from a group of female disciples.  He publicly defended a woman who poured out a year’s wages worth of expensive oil on his feet, and wiped it with her hair.

Jesus railed against the Pharisees, but also ate in their homes.  He drew crowds of poor peasants, and rich young rulers.

At times he made the bar of being his disciple as low as the simple invitation to “Come, follow me.”  At other times he made it agonizingly high, like when he replied to a would be disciple who wished to return home upon the death of his father for the lengthy grieving rituals.  Jesus’ reply: “Let the dead bury their own dead.”

Whatever kind of easy going buddy-Jesus type image a certain brand of American Christianity has created in the last while quickly disappears with even a skim of the gospel material.  If we manage to read through the gospels without in some way being offended by something Jesus says or does we likely aren’t paying attention.

His mission was not to offend, or scandalize for the sake of scandal.  His mission, which he perhaps fully came to terms with during those 40 days in the wilderness after his baptism after which these days of Lent are patterned.  His mission was to bring good news.  Good news.  To proclaim that the reign of God was at hand, pressing in on historical time, making itself known in the present moment through him and those who follow in his way.

But what is good, freeing, liberating news for some, is threatening news for others.  Specifically, for those who uphold and benefit from the current moral and political power arrangements.  It is unsettling news for those who hold a monopoly on the sacred, the gatekeepers of who is considered blessed and who is is considered cursed.  And those who are accustomed to receiving unquestioned allegiance.

It was with these folks and systems Jesus tangled and tangoed during the final week of his life.  A week which ends in his crucifixion at the hands of Rome.  This was an especially cruel form of public torture reserved for slaves and enemies of the state.  Crucifixion was strategic in its horror.  It was intended to have the same effect as shock and awe modern warfare.  To be so overwhelmingly awful as to deter those who saw it from ever doing anything that might put them in similar danger.  The unwritten but clearly communicated sign attached to every one of the 1000s of people Rome crucified was “Don’t let this happen to you.”

There’s no way around the violence of Jesus’ death.

This winter I found myself in a bit of a jam while visiting with the elementary school aged Sunday school classes.  Christian Ed Commission asked me to speak with our young people about rituals in the church like Communion and Baptism and Coming of Age, and to talk about the liturgical calendar.  That’s where we started.  Advent and Christmas went pretty much as anticipated, with a nice mix of incarnational theology and kids wanting to talk about their favorite Christmas presents.  When we got around to Lent and Easter, kids of different ages had a similar question.  They wanted to know about Jesus’ death.  More specifically, they wanted to know how he died, down to the details of where exactly the nails went through the body.  They were curious.  And while they knew the basic story, I guess they figured since the pastor was in the room this was their chance to get the inside scoop on what really went down.

And I found myself hesitating with what to say.  What to say about the crucifixion of Jesus to children?  I wondered if this was somewhat equivalent to taking these kids into an R rated movie without parental consent.  On the other, they wanted to know more about this Jesus person we talk so much about, and they deserved more than a vague answer.

So we talked about crucifixion.  I tried to answer the questions they had, without giving details they didn’t ask for.  We wondered together about why some people would want to do that to Jesus, and what it would have been like to be Jesus’s friend as this was happening.  We talked about how this was one of the most powerful things that could have been done against Jesus, but how the kind of power he had was greater even than this, even than death.  We got a little side tracked on the difference between resurrection and zombies, steering towards how we believe that even though we don’t see Jesus’ body anymore, that Jesus is alive through our bodies and somehow we together form one big body that does the kinds of things Jesus did.

Doing theology with kids is much more challenging than adults because they don’t nod their heads in polite agreement if they have no idea what you’re talking about.  Which makes one wonder whether one actually knows what one is talking about.

So what are we talking about?

In our cycle through the liturgical calendar we have arrived at Palm Sunday, the first day of a week to which the gospels commit so much text.

And what we’re talking about, at least in part, is why out of all the thousands of people that Rome crucified, why it’s Jesus’ crucifixion we talk about most.  Why it ended up becoming a symbol of a whole movement that continues to this day, of which we are a part.

Each gospel has its own way of telling the story, but one thing they hold in common is the repeated reminder that the disciples didn’t know what any of this meant while it was happening.  This doesn’t mean they were particularly dense.  It means they were very much like us, immersed in the events of the day, uncertain of what they meant, if anything, in the bigger picture.  It means they experienced the events surrounding Jesus’ death very much like anyone who would experience the death of someone they loved dearly, the fear and grief compounded by the public violence against this one for whom they had given up so much to follow.

John’s gospel interjects that note about the disciples’ lack of understanding right after that palm processional by which Jesus entered Jerusalem.  John writes: “His disciples did not understand these things at first.”

Jesus had entered Jerusalem the way Roman governors entered it during the major Jewish festivals.  Mounted on the back of a horse trained for war, Roman governors entered cities with the kind of public fanfare intended to remind people of who was in charge.  Hovering thick in the air along the processional route was the threat of violence toward those who disturbed the peace of Rome.

The disciples likely at least understood that Jesus’ method of entry was a counterpoint to this.  Perhaps a kind of mock parade in the spirit of street theater.  The alternative off broadway processional on the other side of town. The one without the parade permit.  Complete with props and chants.  A processional with a different message, evoking the Hebrew scriptures which proclaimed that the king of Yahweh’s choosing would come on a young donkey.  Hovering thick in the air along that processional route was the spirit of peaceableness.

Maybe the disciples got at least this much.  But what follows seems to have been impossible to see while it was happening.  For good reason.  It’s still hard to see.

The gospels were written decades after the fact, so it’s difficult to sort out the events themselves from the emerging interpretation of those events embedded in the storytelling.  In John’s gospel we soon hear from Jesus himself, who sensed the inevitability of his own death.  Referring to his crucifixion, Jesus says “Now is the judgement of this world; now the ruler of this world will be driven out” (John 12:31).

It’s a remarkable thing to consider.  What appears in the moment to be a judgement against an individual, resulting in his death, Jesus proposes is actually a judgement against the whole system that conspires to inflict the violence of the cross.  When he says “Now the ruler of this world will be driven out” he uses the same phrase as driving out demons.  In other words, Jesus proposes, to those with ears to hear, that his crucifixion should be seen as an exorcism of global scale, to drive out the ruler of this world.

The demonic ruler being drive out wasn’t Pilate or Caesar or any particular human being.  Anyone could be plugged into their role to keep the whole machine chugging along.  The ruler of the world was the overarching power that seemed to hold the whole world together, that threat of violence hovering thick in the air over Jerusalem, and over human history.

The cross of Christ is a public exorcism of violence, which has now been driven out of this world, which frees us to live under a different power entirely, defined by peaceableness, fierce love, and neighborliness which knows no borders.  The cross means no more crosses.

At least that’s how the disciples came to understand it in retrospect.  That’s the foolishness of the Christian confession of faith.  There are so few visible signs that this was a successful exorcism.  And yet that’s what we foolishly believe.

We’ve been talking about Sabbath throughout Lent.  Sabbath as a day, Sabbath as a year.  Sabbath for God and humanity.  Sabbath for land and animals. Sabbath as a verb that means to cease.

What we’re saying now is that we have been liberated from the spirit of violence and are invited into a permanent Sabbath from violence.  Violence as visible and public as every cross and crucifixion we continue to inflict.  And violence as hidden and personal as the wounds we all carry.

Maybe this Sabbath from violence is like a parade.  A peaceful processional.  The one without the permit, on the other side of town.  A processional through time.  This mobile sanctuary in time.  A processional with Jesus out in front, the living and the dead drawn in to this march toward life.




Sabbath economics | Lent 5| March 18

Texts: Deuteronomy 15:1-18; John 12:1-8

This is week five of Lent, and so the fifth angle we’re taking on Sabbath.  So far we’ve focused mostly on Sabbath as a personal practice.  To review: Sabbath is a sanctuary in time, a certain sort of space-time sacred architecture.  Sabbath is a way of practicing freedom by ceasing from all that tries to enslave us: to-do lists, consumerism, self-importance.  The invitation into Sabbath is not so much like an exasperated Voluntary Service worker ripping up the creations of a persistently active child with the words “this is what happens when we don’t follow the rules,” as it is a way of enjoying that which has been created.  And Sabbath is a way of remembering, remembering original blessing.  That we are blessed and beloved not because of what we do and what we produce, but because of who we inherently are, children of the Creative Spirit whose image we all bear.

If you’re just now joining us, that’s the last month in summary.

Sabbath is personal, but it’s not merely private.  Sabbath practices have broad implications on our collective life.  Sabbath shapes the economy of relationships between people, plants and animals, oxygen and carbon, soil and sun.

Sabbath very much has to do with one of the most under-reported themes of Scripture, and Jesus’ ministry: Economics.  Sabbath economics.

One of my go-to gurus on the topic of economics is an old farmer who lives down in Henry County, Kentucky.  His name is Wendell Berry.  Maybe you’ve heard of him.  It’s difficult to lift out just one thing he has to say on the matter, but this past week I thought of a collection of essays he published in 2010 titled What Matters?  Economics for a Renewed Commonwealth.  In one of the essays he makes an observation about our Anabaptist cousins, the Amish.

Berry’s observation is that the use of draft horses and mules on those farms is more than just “a choice of one kind of traction power over another.  It (is) instead a choice of one kind of farming, and one way of thinking about farming, over another.”  The work animals orient a farm away from specialization and toward diversity.  With the animals come the need for “pasture, forage crops, fenced fields, feed grains, and barns for stable room and feed storage.”  This opens up niches for having other animals.  Crop and animal diversity call for crop rotation, cover crops, and using manure as fertilizer.  The animals also affect scale, keeping the farms relatively small.  The local business community takes shape around these needs.  Harness makers, small equipment factories, and repair shops, serve the farms and circulate money in the community. (“Simple Solutions, Package Deals…, p. 56-57).

His point is not the demotion of the tractor and the promotion of horses, or the glorification of the Amish, who have their own challenges.  The point is to illustrate what he calls “Package deals.”  Many decisions we make about our economic lives are package deals.  Relationships and resources organize themselves around those foundational ways we shape this complex web of relationships we refer to as economy.  So the question whenever we adopt a new kind of technology or practice is What kind of package does this come with?  How does this change other relationships?  How does this impact the community and the neighborhood?

Economics contains the Greek word for household, oikos.  Economics basically means “household management.”  Anyone who has tried to manage a household quickly gains a sense of how even small decisions can become part of a larger package.  Like how where you live affects your monthly mortgage or rent payments, which you need a job to pay, which you may or may not need a car to drive to.  Where you live affects the people you do and don’t see on a daily basis.  It’s a package.

When four friends and I took a year off from college and lived together in Atlanta, we made the decision that even though our apartment had a dishwasher, we weren’t going to use it.  We figured washing and drying and putting away dishes together would give us more time to talk about our days.  We stuck with it the whole year, with varying lengths of time in how long it took for the dishes to actually get washed.  It was a good package for us.  Now Abbie and I use our dishwasher constantly because we’d much rather talk about our days while not doing dishes.

Sabbath economics, as presented in the Hebrew Scriptures, is its own kind of package deal.  One shaped around just a few foundational values.

Sabbath is set up as a cycle of seven days.  It’s also set up as a cycle of seven years.  Just as every seventh day was a day when the community was free to cease from production mode, shift from doing to being, so every seventh year was an entire year dedicated to Sabbath practice.  And in this year, all sorts of strange and wonderful things happened.

For starters, according to Leviticus 25, farmers got the year off.  Farmers stopped farming, which meant the land got to rest, the livestock got to rest, male and female indentured servants got to rest.  For one year, everyone reverted back to foraging, living off their pantries and whatever the land volunteered on its own.  One can quickly imagine how a year like this would be a package deal, with the other six years organized around the fact that year seven is a very different kind of year.

Deuteronomy 15 adds that in the Sabbath year all debts among fellow Israelites would be forgiven, and all Hebrew slaves would be freed.  These weren’t the kind of slaves that would have been bought and sold on a market, but people who had fallen into personal crisis through poor health or poor harvest, had already sold all their land to cover expenses, and needed to sell their remaining asset, their labor, in order to stay afloat.  Basically, they entered the household of their creditor.  But after seven years, they were released, along with a generous parting gift supplying all they would need to get back on their feet again, to re-form their own household.  Again, we can begin to imagine how this kind of arrangement would bring with it a whole package of how credit and indentured servanthood worked in the community, with the built in mechanism of debt being only temporary.

And if the Sabbath year wasn’t enough of a package arrangement, after every seven Sabbath years, seven sevens, on the fiftieth year, was a mega-Sabbath.  On this year, called the Jubilee, even land was to be returned to its ancestral owners, such that no Israelite family would be permanently landless – Land being the source of self-sufficiency, financial security, and wealth.

As far as I can tell, there were two primary foundational ideas, or values, or organizing principles of the collective imagination on which Sabbath and Jubilee practices were based.  Both very simple.

One is that the land belongs to Yahweh, Leviticus 25:23.  The people are just tenants and immigrants on Yahweh’s land so they can’t own it and what it produces forever.  That’s number 1.

And number two, there shall be no poor among you.  Deuteronomy 15:4.

That pretty much covers it.  That’s the box that holds the package.  Hardships and crises are going to happen, but no one should be permanently poor, and it’s the responsibility of the community to see this is the case.  And, the land’s not yours anyway, you’re just renting it from Yahweh, so don’t be too upset if Yahweh reclaims and redistributes the leases every couple generations.

There is strong historical evidence that the Sabbath year was regularly practiced.  There is little to no evidence that the Jubilee year was ever practiced.  It was a complicated and maybe even impossible piece on legislation to implement, even though Leviticus 25 tries to get into how it might actually work.  When we dug into the nitty gritty details of this text in the Sunday school Bible study class last week the only person in the room whose eyes weren’t glazing over was the attorney whose neurons were firing in delight in comparing and contrasting ancient and contemporary property law.

Even if Jubilee was never operationalized, Sabbath economics remained a package deal for people who believed that 1) the land belonged to God and that 2) there ought not be any neighbor who was stuck in debt slavery.  That’s your horse and your mule.  Every other feature of the economy took shape around those two starting points, with the Sabbatical year being one of the key ways the package got delivered.

So we don’t have the Sabbatical year baked into our society.  Quite the contrary.

But we are a community that keeps alive a collective imagination that everything we have originates from and returns to the Source of All Being, in other words isn’t really ours, and that poverty is more a reflection of the health of the community than the person who is poor.

I was pleased to see in Friday’s Dispatch an article about how the St. Vincent de Paul Society of Columbus has set up a micro loan program.  It’s designed as an alternative to loans from payday lenders.  Ohio has the highest payday lending rates in the country.  And while these businesses are offering a needed service, they are profiting immensely off of people’s crises or just their struggles to get by with a low wage job or two or three.  Rather than people getting stuck in a cycle of ballooning debt, St. Vincent de Paul is working through a credit union to offer small loans at low rates.  This is accompanied with financial counseling for how they might pay it back over a reasonable amount of time.  That is Sabbath economics at work.

Three years ago we did a little experiment.  We acknowledged that many among us carry overwhelming debt, and we invited anyone who felt this way to submit their name anonymously while everyone else was invited to give generously toward what we called a Jubilee Fund.  After three weeks, just three weeks, we collected $25,285.  We then distributed this evenly to 28 folks, who were then able to pay down the principle on their debt by $903.03.  It wasn’t a full Jubiliee, by any means, but hopefully it was sign that we have not forgotten that we can be Jubilee people.  I’m aware of at least two congregations who heard about this and did the same thing.

Let’s end with another story.  It’s today’s lectionary gospel reading: the story of Mary anointing Jesus’s feet in her home at Bethany, just outside Jerusalem.

John doesn’t name this as a Sabbath story, but textual clues point toward Sabbath.  It begins by saying this was six days before Passover.  Passover was on a Friday.  Do the math six days prior to Friday and we’re on a Saturday, the seventh day of the week, the Sabbath.

So it’s the Sabbath.

Jesus is at the table in the home of his dear friends Martha, Mary, and Lazarus, who are all siblings.  Lazarus and Martha are playing their predictable roles – Lazarus sitting with Jesus at the table, and Martha serving.  But Mary does something entirely unpredictable.  In an act that is both extravagant and intimate, she takes a pound of very costly, imported perfume, a pound of it, and pours it out on Jesus’ feet.  And then she bends down and begins wiping Jesus’ feet with her hair.  And whatever people were talking about before trails off into silence, and whatever smell from the meal had filled the room is overpowered by the fragrance of this perfume.

Judas is not impressed.  He calculates the worth of the perfume, almost a year’s wages for a laborer, let’s say, for us, $50,000, poured out, on someone’s feet, wasted, wafting out the windows.

Judas accuses and wonders out loud how many poor folks could have been fed with a year’s wages.

Jesus’s response is one that has been used against poor people ever since.  “The poor you will always have with you.”  So, like, Why do anything about it, right?  Jesus’ words are a direct reference back to Deuteronomy 15 which said, “there shall be no poor among you.”  Sabbath economics.  As if Jesus is admitting the failure of the community to live out the command that there shall be no poor among you.  As if Jesus is telling the disciples where they must position themselves in the calcified social hierarchy.  The poor you will always have with you and so you must always locate yourselves alongside the poor.  As if Jesus is pointing to his feet, motioning to Mary, breathing in the sweet fragrance of the perfume and saying Do you see this Judas?  This is what Sabbath economics looks like.  This is what Sabbath economics smells like.

We can’t count on Sabbath economics to just happen when everyone simply plays their predictable roles.  Sabbath economics is based in abundance, in extravagance, in the unpredictable pouring out of everything like a sweet offering.  On this Sabbath day, it is Mary who has demonstrated Sabbath economics, and it is for us to continue in her unpredictable path, so that a new kind of package might take shape among us, formed around the conviction that all we have is a holy gift ultimately not our own, and there shall be no poor among us.

Sabbath and Original Blessing | Lent 4 | March 11

Texts: Genesis 1:1-13; 1:26-2:3; John 3:14-21

Long, long ago, before you and me – before people – before animals, plants and bacteria, before the earth, and stars, before anything.  When the universe was just an unrehearsed verse in the mind of God, all was dark and unformed.  Only a breath from the Creator swept across the void.

The breath gathered into a shape, a word.  That word was “light,” and when it was spoken, there it was – light.  And the Creator saw that the light was good.  The light was separated from the darkness, and thus began the dance of night and day, evening and morning.

The generation of light was assigned to the stars, and with it the power of creating the full range of elements.   Stars were born and stars died, and in their death they seeded the expanding order with these elemental gifts out of which the rest of creation would be formed.

The Creator spoke again.  Rocks clustered and crashed and formed a planet, a dome with waters above and below, sky and seas, and dry land.  And the Creator saw that this was good.  To the land and sea was given the power to bring forth life.  Plants of all kinds grew and flourished.  To them was given the ability to catch the sun, to splice molecules and rearrange elements to create food for themselves and enrich the atmosphere.  Animals of all kinds grew and flourished, fed by the plants and air.  The land and the sea teamed with life.  The rhythm of evening and morning continued, as life improvised a melody.  And the Creator saw and heard that it was good.

The Creator spoke again, the most daring word yet.  “Let us make humankind in our image, according to our likeness; and let them” have self-reflective consciousness to make their own decisions to direct the ongoing unfolding of creation.  And so it was.  God created humanity, in its full range of gender, in the likeness of the Creator.

The Creator blessed them:  Creatures to continue the creative process, in concert with the stars, the earth and waters, the plants and animals.  God saw everything that had been made, and indeed, it was very good.  And there was evening, and there was morning.

If all this could be condensed down to a week, we would have just finished day six.  Humanity is not the end of the story, not God’s final word on the matter.  They have been granted the powers to be co-creators with God, but there is something that happens first that’s even more important than more creating.

It’s a whole day, day seven, on which nothing of note happens.  For a whole day, nothing new is created.  On it, even God rests.  It’s a day that exists for itself, a day of pleasure and enjoyment, a day of ceasing from work.  A day of reveling in the goodness of creation and resting from whatever control and authority one might have over it.  It’s the first and only aspect of creation which God hallows – declares holy.  The seven day cyle forms a meta rhythm within which the daily rhythms of evening and morning take on their meaning.

This is, more or less, the Hebrew story of creation that begins our Bibles – with a bit of 21st century cosmology sprinkled in for good measure.

It’s a creation that gets a five star review with eight words in the comment section.  Good.  Good. Good. Good. Good. Good. Very Good.  That’s how many times that word shows up in Genesis 1.

In summary, it’s all good.  The light is good.  The dark is good.  The earth is good.  The stars are good.  Life is good.  It is lovely and loved.  A literal translation of John 3:16 is “For God so loved the kosmos.”

The cosmos, the world, is good.  Material reality is good.  Creatureliness is good.  Bodies are good.  Sexuality is good.  Skin and flowers and taste buds and supernovae are good.  Creation has a Divine blessing and it, we, all of this, is very good.

That’s how the story begins.  Goodness and blessing get the first word.

The story does continue, and, as you may be aware, it takes a turn toward the not-so-good.  The humans begin to use their tremendous power against each other and against the earth.  The earth is soon filled with violence.  Brother kills brother.  Tribe battles tribe, forgetting they are a part of the same extended family.  The Creator just about hits control-alt-delete on the whole project by sending a flood to clean the slate and do a system reboot.  It’s not a particularly effective strategy.  The survivors spread out over the earth.  They are complicated creatures.  They perform acts of great courage, love, devotion, and healing.  They commit acts of tremendous violence against neighbors and so called enemies.  At times they even harm themselves.  This cycles through the generations, with the sins of the parents often passed down to the children and grandchildren and so on up to today.  The goodness of creation is not lost, but is often forgotten, hard to see.

Christians have always believed that the person of Jesus plays a central role in this grand drama.

The third chapter of John’s gospel presents one of the ways Jesus understood the meaning of his own life and death.  It involves a serpent, although not the one from the Garden of Eden that gets much of the credit for steering humanity down the wrong path.  This  serpent comes from the wilderness, from the time of Moses and the Israelites.

This is what Jesus says: “And just as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, so must the Human One be lifted up, that whoever believes in him may have abundant life.”

It’s a reference to the story in Numbers 21, when the Israelites face an infestation of venomous snakes biting and killing them.  The people beg Moses to do something – to pray that the Lord will take the serpents away.  Moses prays and receives instructions that, at first glance, seem strange to the modern mind.  Rather than getting rid of the serpents, Moses creates another serpent, this one out of bronze.  This bonus serpent is then mounted up on a pole.  When the people get bit, they are to look up at the bronze serpent and in doing so, they will live.

In this story, the source of healing is found within the source of harm.  The serpents are not hidden or banished, or defeated, they are elevated for all to see.  And it is in seeing clearly, in gazing upon, that which is destroying the community, that the community is preserved.

This is how Jesus interprets his own death.  He too will be lifted up.  For him it will be on a Roman instrument of torture.  The cross embodies all that is abusive and violent about humanity’s misuse of power.  The violence of the cross is what has been destroying the community throughout history, like a venomous snake that keeps biting and biting.  And now, the path back to life, the way to defeat the serpents and live into the goodness of creation, must involve gazing on the very violence on which humanity has come to depend to hold up the whole apparatus that we think keeps us secure and moving forward in history.  In gazing on the cross, we discover our own complicity in the violence, and thus are presented a way out.

Mennonite pastor Horace McMillon recently wrote an essay about how his understanding of the bronze serpent and the cross of Jesus has been deepened through the story of the murder of Emmett Till.  Emmett Till was born and raised in Chicago.  In 1955, when he was 14, his mother, Mamie Till Bradley, sent him down to Mississippi to visit family.  While there, Emmett entered a store and got into a conversation with Carolyn Bryant.  She was 21, married to the store owner, and white.  Emmett Till was black and had unknowingly violated the color codes of the Jim Crow South.  Emmett was accused of making sexual advances toward Mrs. Bryant.  Her husband and his brother abducted Emmett from the home where he was staying, beat him, shot him, mutilated his body, and threw him in the Tallehatchie River.

When his body was recovered, Mamie Till Bradley made the decision that her son would not only have a public funeral, but that it would be an open casket.  In gazing on the brutalized body of Emmett Till, the world was forced to confront the violence of racism and the sin of white supremacy festering in society.  The death of Emmitt Till, his body lifted up for all to see, like the bronze serpent in the wilderness, like Jesus on the cross, like Michael Brown on the street of Fergusson, Missouri….Emmit Till became one of the galvanizing moments for the beginning of the Civil Rights movement.

Exposing and thus overcoming violence is one of the ways Jesus interprets his own death within a good creation that has lost its way.

But looking at a cross is hard work.  Especially when it keeps showing up in the headlines every day in the form of murdered school children, refugees fleeing war, mass incarceration and deportation, you fill out your own list.  We are in one sense saved from our complacency in being willing to gaze on these sins of humanity.  We are pointed toward the grace of God. In another sense, we can quickly succumb to cross-gazing fatigue, outrage fatigue, compassion fatigue, fatigue fatigue.

We need another part of the story to sustain us.  We need a story that leads us back to the goodness of creation, to life as a blessing and a gift to be enjoyed.

Back in the 1980’s Matthew Fox wrote a book called Original Blessing.  It was his way of offering a corrective to the church’s longtime emphasis on original sin.  One of his key points was that even deeper than violence and sin is the reality of blessing and goodness.  Genesis 1 comes before, Genesis 2 and 3, and so, he reminds us, we are, at our deepest core, in our truest self, blessed and beloved of God.

Gazing at the cross, in all its many forms and faces, is six day a week work.  It’s painful work, and one of the ways we journey with Jesus through life.  It is a constant reminder of the power of our collective sin to destroy and harm life.

But Sabbath can be our way back to original blessing.

Sabbath invites us to cease even from struggling to do good, and to simply receive the goodness already given, which is from God, which has been from the beginning.

Original blessing, like Genesis 1, is the language of faith.  It’s the language of myth, in the best sense of the world.  There is no actual point in history in which everything was perfect and good.  There is no point to return to in order to “Make creation great again.”

It is the language of faith that offers us original blessing.  It’s a container that holds everything else.  And it makes a profound difference to operate out of a mode of original blessing.  Original blessing impacts how we understand our bodies, and bodies that are different than ours, because they too are blessed.  Original blessing is a container able to hold all the sorrow, and all the joy in the world.  Original blessing can hold the Christ of the cross, and the Christ of the incarnation which participates in the material world not to solve any problems, but simply because of its goodness.  Because God so loves the kosmos.

Original blessing may not be a historical point in time to return to, but Sabbath is.  Sabbath is a recurring point in time, it is embodied history, and it comes around on a seven day cycle.  Sabbath practice is a way of living out the blessedness of creation within history.  To practice Sabbath is to enter into the rest of God’s goodness, to relish in that goodness all around us, to approach the world and people not as a set of problems to be solved, but as a gift to be enjoyed for its own sake.

Throughout Scripture the word remember is frequently attached to the Sabbath.  Remember the Sabbath.  Remember.  It provokes the question of what is it we forget when we forget to Sabbath?  What of blessing, what of goodness, what of life abundant, what of Christ do we forget?

Remember that you are blessed.  Remember that you are beloved.  Remember that you are created in the image of God in order to create this world with God, and in order to sabbath with God and enjoy the goodness that is ours.



Sabbath and Time | Lent 1 | February 18

Texts: Mark 1:9-15; Exodus 16:1-5; 13-26

Over the years I’ve watched my fair share of TED talks.  One that left a big impression was also one of the shortest.  It’s a talk by Jessa Gamble from way back in 2010 titled “Our natural sleep cycle is nothing like what we do now.”   Rather than the standard 18ish minute TED talk, this one is only three minutes and 55 seconds.

Her talk goes something like this: Humans, like all other multicell organisms, plants and animals, have an internal clock.  It’s part of our chemical make up, linked to the daily cycle of light and darkness.  Humans evolved close to the equator, where days and nights are about equal, so our body clocks are most naturally equipped for this kind of cycle.  But we’ve spread to every corner of the globe, where daylight and night time hours are not evenly split, and of course our modern world of abundant artificial light throws another curve at our sleeping patterns.

But we seem to have a fairly persistent body clock, even when we don’t know whether it’s night or day.  Jessa Gamble cites studies of people having their watches taken away and living in a bunker underground for weeks and months at time, with a combination of darkness and artificial light.  After the initial disorientation, participants settled into a consistent sleeping pattern, what Gamble and others refer to as our natural sleep cycle.  It matched up with what we know about pre-industrial sleeping patterns.

It turns out we most naturally sleep twice, rather than once.  Participants would go to sleep around 8pm, wake up around midnight, have about a two hour span of alert wakefulness, and then go back to sleep from about 2am until sunrise.  Eight hours of sleep in a ten hour window…ish.  During those middle two waking hours the body releases high doses of prolactin, a chemical with all kinds of positive health benefits.

This is how Gamble ends her talk:

“The people in these studies report feeling so awake during the day time that they realize they’re experiencing true wakefulness for the first time in their lives.  So, cut to modern day, we’re living in a culture of jet lag, global travel, 24 hour business, shift work.  And our modern ways of doing things have their advantages, but I believe we should understand the costs.  Thank you.”  End of TED talk.

I don’t remember when I first watched this.  It was probably around 11pm, when my not-so-distant ancestors would have been sleeping their way toward their daily surge of prolactin, and I was trying to milk the day for just one more thing before trying to fall asleep.  I do remember how I felt right after those closing lines about true wakefulness.  It was like someone shows you something beautiful and says, “This, this is your birthright.  But you know you can’t get it.”  And then says, “But I dare you to try.”

This short talk that I’ve never really stopped thinking about came to mind soon after we settled on Sabbath as the theme for Lent.  Practicing Sabbath in the modern world often feels about as practical as the pre-industrial, pre-artificial light sleep cycle – for many of the same reasons.  There are just so many factors working against us.

One option would be for us to dive into the history and purpose and theology and poetic praise of Sabbath, to paint a beautiful picture of what could be, and then end by saying, “Well, at least now we know what we’re missing.”

Another option would be to do that first part, to look more deeply into Sabbath scriptures and practices and their meaning, to glimpse something beautiful that is our birthright, and then dare ourselves to try.

I’m aiming for the latter.  As I’ve been in conversation with Mark and Robin and Worship Commission about this Lent, we share a hope that Sabbath practices, Sabbath-making, being made by Sabbath, might become a more important part of our lives, individually and collectively, as a result of this season.

So let’s get started and see where this leads.

The first Sunday of Lent always takes us out into the wilderness, with Jesus.  Jesus has just undergone that radical life-defining water ritual of baptism.  He had come from Nazareth, where he grew up, in the Galilee region, and opted in to the restoration movement initiated by John the Baptizer.  Under the hand of John, Jesus goes down under the waters of the Jordan.  As he emerges he’s greeted by a feathered Spirit, a dove descending toward him, and a voice that proclaims him a Beloved Son.

This, however, is only the beginning of Jesus’ initiation into the work ahead of him and the kind of consciousness he must have to fulfill it.  In Mark’s urgent style of narration, that same dove-like Spirit immediately drove Jesus out into the wilderness, where he lived for 40 days.

In the scriptures the wilderness is a place of education.  Of learning and un-learning.  A prime location in the Divine pedagogy.  Separated from one’s usual environment, and from the life-support systems of civilization, one faces down everything one most fears, is exposed to one’s limitations, is confronted with one’s desires.  In the wilderness one must separate intuition from temptation.  Sort through the voices in one’s head and find the center that holds.  Mark summarizes all this by saying Jesus was “tempted by Satan; and the angels waited on him.”

Those 40 wilderness days are re-lived each year in the liturgical season of Lent.  Throughout Lent we enter into the wilderness with Jesus.  The wilderness is a place of re-education, refinement, casting off things you don’t need; finding something you didn’t know you’d lost.  Sort of like going down into a bunker for a while and re-disovering your natural sleep cycle.  The trick is how to have the wilderness experience while life goes on as usual.  Maybe life has to stop going on as usual.

This is not a Sabbath passage, per se, but it does set the stage in some way for Sabbath-living.  Jesus emerges from the baptismal waters, then emerges from the wilderness, with a message.  It’s a message summarized in Mark 1:15, placed on the tongue of Jesus:  “The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God has come near.  Turn, change your mind, and believe this good news.”

This is Jesus’ elevator speech, and it’s very much focused on a peculiar way of living in relation to time.  Living, as if time has reached its fulfillment, and the kingdom of God is present and pervasive.  Such that we can relax in to a world defined by compassion, peacefulness, and neighborliness.  That’s the good news Jesus proclaims.  It’s an invitation to a certain consciousness about time which affects every aspect of how we live and move and relate within time.  The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God has come near.

In the middle of the 20th century, Abraham Joshua Heschel wrote what is still the definitive work on Sabbath in the modern world.  One of his key ideas is that humans have gotten pretty good at mastering the world of space.  Not space travel space, but space as in the world of things.  Three dimensional space.  Atoms, molecules; roads and cars; streets and buildings; mining and manufacturing.  He calls all this “technical civilization,” which excels at the conquest of space.

He traces our pre-occupation with space and things back through ancient religions that located deities in particular locations, “like mountains, forests, trees or stones, which are…singled out as holy places” (p. 4).

And then he turns a corner:

He writes: “Indeed, we know what to do with space, but do not know what to do with time, except make it subservient to space.  Most of us seem to labor for the sake of things of space.  As a result we suffer from a deeply rooted dread of time and stand aghast when compelled to look into its face.  Time to us is sarcasm, a slick treacherous monster with a jaw like a furnace incinerating every moment of our lives.  Shrinking, therefore, from facing time, we escape for shelter to things of space”  (p. 5).

Heschel proposes that we’ve missed the point.  That it is that mysterious 4th dimension we call time which is most sacred.  That holiness is most deeply experienced not in sacred objects but in sacred moments.  And that Sabbath is the primary embodiment of time’s holiness.

He writes: “Sabbaths are our great cathedrals” (p.8).  The Sabbath is “a palace in time,” a “sanctuary in time.”  It puts a different spin on this concept of sanctuary we’ve been working on for a while now.  Sanctuary has to do with how we use our space, but also has to do with how we use time.   When we live in such a way that we enter regularly into sanctuaries in time, we are on our way to Sabbath living.

The first biblical account of people engaging in Sabbath practice is found in Exodus 16.  It takes place, not coincidentally, in the wilderness.  The wilderness is a place of education and re-education, learning and unlearning.  What the Hebrews are unlearning in the wilderness, throughout Exodus, is their deep enculturation into Pharaoh’s time clock.  For generations the Hebrews had been slaves in Egypt, under the regime of Pharaoh.  In Egypt, there were no Sabbaths.  Under Pharaoh’s anxious eye, the demands for production were always rising and time as a gift of being was always in recession.

But the Hebrews had been delivered out of slavery by Yahweh, under the leadership of Moses and Aaron and Miriam, who led them through the Red Sea which now marks the beginning of a new era of re-education in the wilderness where they will be for 40 years.

The wilderness can be a fearful place, without the life support systems one has come to depend on.  As if to confront this head on, the first instance of collective Sabbath practice has to do with something as absolutely necessary as food.  There will be manna in the desert six days a week, and on the sixth day they are to gather enough for two days, because the seventh day will be a Sabbath, when they will celebrate the enoughness of what they have, and there will be no need to gather.

It’s a new kind of rhythm that will come to define their lives.  Under the regime of Yahweh, time is not merely for labor and provision and altering the world of space.  It is for dwelling content within the world of time.  Defined not by acquisitiveness or accumulation, but by restful enjoyment.  Or, in the words of Jessa Gamble and those bunker experiment participants: “True wakefulness.”

Very soon the Israelites will come to a mountain in the desert where they’ll be given 10 commandments to order their lives.  Sabbath is one of those commandments.  More on that in the coming weeks.

The Christian default mode is perhaps to assume that Sabbath is the one commandment Jesus didn’t particularly care for – and neither should we.  He was rather fond of pushing the boundaries of what was acceptable on the Sabbath, but it was always in the direction of healing and wholeness and restoration.  Not so much in the direction of a more frenzied life.

His message about the time being fulfilled and the Kingdom of God being near could be understood as an expansion of Sabbath and Jubilee.  They’re so good and beautiful that they’re in the process of taking over the world.  They’re our birthright as beloved sons and daughters of God.

As distant and almost impossible as it may seem much of the time, what if our lives would more and more come to be ordered around sanctuaries in time that we enter and enjoy?  Regularly.